Barbara Thompson

Barbara Thompson


Assistant Professor
Pediatrics and Human Development



The Thompson Lab: 

Social motivation in young children with and without autism spectrum disorder

Neurodevelopmental disorders disrupt neural circuitry involved in complex mental processes including cognition and affect, the latter influencing attention, motivation/reward and emotional regulation. Social-emotional processing is a difficult construct to test in developing children, yet is crucial for establishing important daily interactions and routines. While surveys, questionnaires, and expressive language can assay social-emotional processing in verbal children, the challenge is far greater when trying to determine these functions in a non-verbal child, or children with language impairments. Neurodevelopmental disorders can effect language (either receptive or expressive), and therefore, tools that probe internal responses such as feelings, drives, and motivations, become necessary for these populations. In these sets of studies we investigate social preference in typically developing (TD) children and children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) using a combination of eye tracking and behavioral phenotyping techniques. Our preliminary eye tracking data demonstrate that individuals with ASD show different eye gaze patterns when viewing scenes containing salient social and non-social stimuli. Additionally, we have developed a unique behavioral paradigm, conditioned place preference (CPP), to probe differences in motivation, reward, and aversion in young children. We are capitalizing on our preliminary findings that TD children display social preference, and seek to further examine what drives social behaviors in young children. By examining both TD children and children with ASD, we hope to provide a theoretical framework grounded in developmental neurobiological processes to explain social preference heterogeneity in young children. These studies will provide a more comprehensive characterization of social preference allowing for the discrimination between reward, lack of motivation, and aversion to social stimuli. This distinction is necessary for facilitating individualized intervention strategies that seek to improve social interactions in children.

SEND Lab Webside

·   Hiller, L.T., and Takata, S. and Thompson, B.L.: Conditioned place preference successfully established in typically developing children. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. 9 (187), 2015.


Manuscript in Preparation:


·   Baron, D., Holland, C.M., and Thompson, B.L.: Understanding social motivation differences in young children with autism spectrum disorders. Behavioral Brain Research


Resiliency to toxic stress


The goal of this research network is to reduce the prevalence of lifelong health impairments that are caused by toxic stress in the early years of life. The network is focused on identifying biomarkers for behavioral, autonomic, neuroendocrine, immune, and metabolic resilience to early life adversity in very young children. Mom infant dyads participate in 7 research visits across the first three years of life. We collect high-density EEG, remote eye-tracking, developmental assessments, urine for isoprostane analysis, and videotaped social interactions between mom and infant.


Manuscript in Review:


·   Pierce, L., Thompson, B.L., Gharib, A., Schlueter, L., Reilly, E., Valdes, V., Roberts, S., Levitt, P., and Nelson, C.A.: Association of perceived maternal stress during the perinatal period and EEG in 2-month old infants. JAMA Pediatrics


Manuscripts in Preparation:


·   Thompson, B.L, Levitt, P., Itti, L., and Gharib, A.: Optimizing remote eye-tracking methodology for use in two month old infants. eNeuro


·   Valdes,V., Pierce, .LJ, Reilly, E., Jensen, S.K.G., Levitt, P., Nelson, C.A., and Thompson, B.L. Cognitive ability in the infant and associations with family demographics. Child Development

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